Education Letter to the Editor


June 05, 2002 15 min read
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Is Any Certification Worth Continuing?

To the Editor:

Regarding your reporting this year on the merits of the national program of teacher certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (“Critical Study of NBPTS Spurs State Advisory Group to Act,” May 15, 2002; “National Board Is Pressed to Prove Certified Teachers Make Difference,” Jan. 30, 2002): The issue is even broader, namely, is any current program of public school teacher certification, state or national, worth continuing?

Fifty-plus years ago, a friend of mine who had graduated with honors from New York University as a history major and then from the Harvard Law School wished to change professions and applied for teacher certification to the New York City board of education. During one semester at NYU, she had taken a single education course, one in how to teach crafts to children. That was the only coursework this learned woman could count for certification. She would have made a fabulous teacher.

Today, I know a young teacher in an elementary school where 90 percent of the students qualify for the free-lunch program who also graduated from college in history. She’s so good at teaching that after only two years, she received a teacher-of-the-year award. But she is uncertified because none of her history courses counts for certification.

Meanwhile, parents nationwide who can afford it struggle to gain admission for their children to private schools—and pay tens of thousands of dollars annually—so that their children can be taught by teachers with substantive liberal arts educations who overwhelmingly lack any certification at all.

Is it possible that the current certification process, state or federal, backed by education administrators and education schools, is just a monopolistic practice in restraint of truly effective public education?

Louisa C. Spencer
New York, N.Y.

NBPTS Favors ‘Progressivism’

To the Editor:

J.E. Stone has made a valuable contribution to education reform with his study of national-board certification and student achievement in Tennessee (“Critical Study of NBPTS Spurs State Advisory Group to Act,” May 15, 2002).

Many classroom teachers are aware of the progressivist bias in the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ process, the low priority it gives to student achievement as measured by standardized tests, and the difficulty it is having in showing that board- certified teachers are really any better than other teachers. Mr. Stone has added solid research to give further proof of these problems.

In a front-page article in the same issue, you report on the “abysmal” scores attained by high school seniors on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ U.S. history test (“U.S. History Again Stumps Senior Class,” May 15, 2002). As a long-time history teacher, I see a connection between that problem and the misdirected emphasis of the NBPTS, as cataloged by Mr. Stone’s study. The board insists on treating history like an activity not necessarily academic in nature. While portfolios are completed in learner-centered activities such as cooperative learning, project method, and critical thinking, little attention is paid to the more traditional goals of curriculum, knowledge, class structure, or academic standards.

Many teachers like me are convinced that overreliance on such progressivist methods, favored by the powerful and influential NBPTS, are responsible for students’ low scores on national tests, and believe we can look forward to even lower ones as these methods become more prevalent.

The sudden interest by the NBPTS in test scores is probably based on its need to maintain its image by aligning itself with the standards and accountability programs in many states. Some future studies might possibly show that some national-board-certified teachers actually do outperform other teachers, even in standardized-test scores.

But what we need now is a study to determine whether the board has a clear and consistent bias in favor of one type of methodology, and whether these methods regularly produce high scores on student-achievement tests. The tests are demanded by the U.S. Department of Education, state legislatures, and the general public. And the NBPTS is an expensive program. It should be obligated to show results.

Mr. Stone has taken a big step toward finding the truth of this matter, and I eagerly wait to see what becomes of the Education Commission of the States’ action.

John Tuepker
Long Beach, Miss.

Child Development Is Now ‘Left Behind’

To the Editor:

“No Child Left Behind” is the educational banner of the current administration. All bases have been covered with the annual testing of grades 3-8. There are transfers available for children in schools failing to meet the standards set. All children will be reading by the 3rd grade. Sounds good, sells well.

What bothers me is the total lack of concern with the developmental aspects of the child. That was the buzzword in education a few years back. In fact, as I recall, we used the terms “development” and “readiness” interchangeably.

What is readiness and why should it be important in today’s no-child-left- behind culture? Well, simply put, readiness is that stage when a child is able to profit from instruction in a given task. It involves the physiological, psychological, and social growth of the child. We cannot isolate these factors in determining readiness. They may be independent entities, but they interact and can have an effect on the readiness stage of every child.

The significance to education lies in the fact that readiness for a child is a very personal and individual matter. It depends on many experiences that the child has had in his preschool years. Some children have had their school readiness enhanced to a greater degree than others. It’s important that we recognize these readiness-enhancing experiences and the role they play in determining a child’s ability to make progress in school.

Which leads to the most critical part in the child’ preschool-readiness level: the parents. Have they provided an environment where there is a great deal of language interaction, both verbal and written? Do they read stories to the child, or does the family sit quietly in front of the TV every evening? Parents can enhance readiness or impede it with their investments in time and effort.

The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 doesn’t adequately address child development or readiness to learn. It’s a sad state of affairs when educators and parents buy in to the idea that educational success or failure is based on how you test and what arbitrary “standards” you put in place. But I guess that’s what happens when educators turn the process of educating children over to politicians and lobbyists.

Robert Pallone
Annapolis, Md.

Iowa District Also Has Wind Turbine

To the Editor:

An item in your Take Note column on Minnesota high school students’ wind-turbine project (“The Windy Suburb,” May 15, 2002) caught my eye. A school district approximately 2½ hours south of Plymouth, Minn., has had a wind turbine for 2½ years. This was a student-based applied-physics project that was presented to the board of education and thus became a reality.

This Iowa project is described on the district’s Web site at www.forestcity.k12.ia.us. There are 140 wind turbines on two different wind farms within 25 miles of Forest City, Iowa.

Lee Hinkley
Forest City, Iowa

Family Matters: Causes and Effects

To the Editor:

I would like to share my thoughts on the Commentary titled “Family Matters” that ran in your May 22, 2002, edition.

For years, policymakers and educators alike have been addressing the effect and ignoring the cause of the problems in our schools. Robert Evans should be congratulated for identifying the cause rather than suggesting, again, throwing money at the effect. I hope that others will begin to see the light. To quote from the Bible (Matthew 13:6): “But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.”

Stephen E. Taylor
Christian Heritage School
Trumbull, Conn.

To the Editor:

Robert Evans’ Commentary speaks the truth. Family matters—of course. And yet, there is persistence in believing that all will be solved in the classroom. I certainly know this from 40 years of experience in school-home relationships,

It’s a struggle to get the point across that parents have to be reached and involved in a sustained way, and that it takes funds, and training, and time for teachers to do this job. It also takes what I have come to call “adult megaskills.” These are the skills and attitudes teachers must develop as they work with and mobilize the support of parents and other adults in the community.

Dorothy Rich
MegaSkills Education Center
Home and School Institute
Washington, D.C.

Michigan Charters: ‘Real Data’ vs. ‘Biased Findings’

To the Editor:

The Commentary by Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson of Western Michigan University about Michigan’s charter public schools reflects flawed research, faulty data, and amazing bias (“What’s Public About Charter Schools?,” Commentary, May 15, 2002).

While I served as deputy superintendent of the Michigan Department of Education from 1995 through 2001, the department contracted with Mr. Miron’s team to study charter schools. The report they produced was so procedurally flawed that it was deemed “worthless” by the department. As their Commentary rehashes that report, let’s address several issues.

  • Access and Equity. The authors claim charters avoid hard-to-educate students. U.S. Department of Education statistics prove that most Michigan charter students are at risk. More than 40 percent qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch; more than half are minorities. (Both statistics are significantly higher than the state average.)

Michigan data show that almost 95 percent of all Michigan charters offer middle and/or high school grades, and that charters have comparable numbers of special education students (much higher than what Western Michigan University researchers report). Furthermore, the data do not reflect hundreds of students on charter waiting lists whose parents are desperate for options because their children were inappropriately designated for special education elsewhere.

Abundant information highlights the expensive, specialized programs charters often offer starting in the lowest grades. Charters provide second languages, character education, extra standardized testing, lower student-to-teacher ratios, and longer school days and years. And they do so with fewer tax dollars, without levying local taxes, or selling public bonds as traditional schools do.

  • Charter Teachers. Charter staff members are paid competitively, considering that teachers in new schools will be paid at lower levels than teachers close to retirement. It’s interesting that Mr. Miron and Mr. Nelson admit charters enjoy high levels of staff satisfaction. These teachers are pleased to have increased input into their schools and to have the power to accelerate student learning. In fact, Michigan charters employ hundreds of long-time educators who hail the freedom they have to do what children need.
  • Student Achievement. Students entering charters often lag behind by several grade levels. Yet, charters outperform traditional schools in all subject areas of the Michigan Department of Education’s complex measure of “adequate yearly progress.” Students who study at charters two years or more have cut in half and nearly closed the gaps between their scores and state averages on Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests.
  • Innovation. Critics often ignore the fundamental innovation of choice and governance. Research by Harvard University professor Caroline M. Hoxby shows traditional Michigan schools facing significant charter competition make remarkable strides in student performance. Charters also are proving repeatedly the efficacy of a “corporate” governance model vs. the traditional “political” model that often impedes school improvement.

Real data disprove many of Mr. Miron and Mr. Nelson’s “findings.” They are right about one thing, though: Other states should look at Michigan. Those who do will see the promise of open public education, parents who are embraced and involved, and teachers who are reaching every child.

Michael R. Williamson
Detroit, Mich.

An extended response from Mr. Williamson on this topic is available at http://www.charterfriends.org./michigan- counterpoint.html#full.

Reading Report: Add an Addendum: Common Sense

To the Editor:

I read with fascination Timothy Shanahan’s recent letter about the National Reading Panel’s findings on the role of independent reading (“Reading Report’s Unending Debate,” Commentary, May 22, 2002). To be fair, I can only imagine the gargantuan task and the political pressure that the NRP members faced when they were placed on that panel. However, I am wondering if they were all in the same room, participating in the same discussion, about the same topics.

Every time I read or hear a comment by one of the panel’s members (and now by any of the Reading First folks in Washington) on the findings of the NRP report, yet another differing interpretation of some fine point is offered. In fact, contradictions seem to be the rule of the day when discussing the interpretations of the NRP report and the Reading First legislation. Those of us who are charged with actual implementation are becoming more than frustrated with this debate.

The controversy about independent reading is especially troubling. Mr. Shanahan says, “The issue that the NRP studied was not whether independent reading had value, but what school efforts lead children to increase their amount of reading.” He compares programs to encourage reading to schemes to encourage children to eat a balanced diet, and further admonishes us that “likewise, no matter what the benefits of [independent] reading—and they appear to be extensive—not all plans for encouraging kids to read more are likely to work.”

Can this statement possibly be interpreted to mean that children should be discouraged from reading during the school day at all? Knowing Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Susan Neuman’s admirable research on the correlation of access to books and reading achievement, I would certainly think not. Yet, as a member of my state Reading Leadership committee, I have traveled to Washington twice to listen to Reading First presentations about the new reading law. On one occasion (Feb. 13, 2002), an assembly of state representatives of which I was part was told explicitly by one of the Reading First presenters, “There is no room for independent reading during the school day.”

If Mr. Shanahan’s statements are true, and the NRP looked only at research regarding programs to encourage independent reading, someone should inform the Reading First committee. It appears that the National Reading Panel members who produced the original report and the Reading First committee in Washington that is interpreting the law based on the report need to get on the same page (if a book metaphor can be permitted).

I shudder to think that any state official or school administrator, believing that Washington really does know all the answers for the reading education of all children everywhere, may be taking books out of the classrooms, hands, and minds of children based on such irresponsible statements. As one part of a balanced literacy program, children need to be surrounded by books of all kinds, sizes, and shapes and given time to read them to become readers. We owe it to our children to use not only “science,” but also common sense.

Brenda Overturf
Gheens Academy
Louisville, Ky.

To the Editor:

In his May 22, 2002, letter to the editor, Timothy Shanahan seems to retreat from the document that he helped author. He claims that the benefits of independent reading “appear to be extensive,” yet the report found that several commonly adopted programs do not succeed in developing this habit in students. The report, Mr. Shanahan claims, does not question the value of independent reading— only the efficacy of programs designed to foster it.

In fact, the report goes beyond its examination of particular programs to question the value of independent reading itself (Pages 12-13 of the short report). The authors speculate that independent reading may be an effect of reading proficiency (good readers read a lot), rather than a cause of proficient reading (reading a lot produces good readers). It’s like arguing that boys who play a lot of playground basketball do so because they possess basketball skills, but that the extensive playing may not further develop those skills.

Consequently, the report does not assert that the benefits of independent reading are “extensive"; it claims they are unproven and perhaps inconsequential.

I can understand Mr. Shanahan’s desire to reshape this conclusion, but it’s too late to rewrite the report now.

Thomas Newkirk
Director of Literacy Institutes
University of New Hampshire
Durham, N.H.

To the Editor:

In separate letters to Education Week, both Patrick Groff (“‘Guided Oral’ Vs. ‘Free Silent’ Reading,” Commentary, May 1, 2002) and Timothy Shanahan (“Reading Report’s Unending Debate,” Commentary, May 22, 2002) accuse me of misinterpreting the National Reading Panel report. I summarized the National Reading Panel’s conclusions as follows: " ... there is no clear evidence that getting children to read more actually improves reading achievement” (“‘Free Reading’ Promotes Literacy,” Commentary, April 10, 2002.). This is what the NRP said. Here is a direct quote from the report: “Based on the existing evidence, the NRP can only indicate that while encouraging children to read might be beneficial, research has not yet demonstrated this in a clear and convincing manner.”

Mr. Shanahan makes it clear in his letter, however, that this is not his interpretation, that the report only concluded that certain ways of encouraging reading may not be effective, repeating the NRP’s claim that programs such as sustained silent reading do not result in more reading or better reading. I have argued that this conclusion is incorrect, in several letters to Education Week and in a detailed article in the Phi Delta Kappan. The NRP missed a lot of studies (including all studies involving second-language acquirers) and misreported several of the studies the panelists did include.

Mr. Groff claims that the NRP found that “guided oral reading” is more effective than free voluntary reading. This is not correct. Sustained silent reading and guided oral reading were never compared with each other; each was compared with other treatments, typically traditional basal methods.

Finally, Mr. Shanahan refers to his conclusions as “frank information” and criticisms as “slippery arguments and overblown claims.” This kind of name-calling is inaccurate, uncalled for, and unprofessional.

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
School of Education
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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